Low-density Zoning Threatens Neighborhood Character

A few months ago the American Planning Association dubbed the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis a Great Place in America. They cited a lot of the things I like about the neighborhood: parks, bike paths, grocery stores, light rail, community events, small businesses, and the people. There’s one way that planning limits the opportunities of low-income residents, increases economic segregation, weakens our commercial corridors, and makes transit less successful: low-density zoning.

Duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes are attractive and accessible

Small apartment buildings are an important part of every neighborhood’s housing stock. They’re more economical than single family homes, because you’re splitting heating/plumbing/land costs among more people, but many have amenities like porches and yards. Here’s a chart that shows the economic diversity of neighbors who live in 2-4 unit buildings:

We’ve made traditional neighborhoods illegal

Our zoning code regulates how many homes (housing units) are allowed on each lot. Large areas of the city are designated low-density zones (R1, R1A, R2, and R2B), which permit one-family homes or maybe duplexes, and prohibit buildings with three or more homes. Because Minneapolis is older than these zoning laws, there are homes all over the city that don’t match the zoning code, but have been grandfathered in (they’re called “legal non-conforming” in plannerese). By comparing the number of licensed rental units to the permitted density in the zoning code, I made a map that shows each non-conforming property, where the color represents the number of units in the building.

That’s a lot of dots! Let’s take a look at some of these nonconforming properties in Seward along East 25th Street, by the Birchwood Cafe:

Duplex in a single-family zone


4-unit apartment in a single-family zone

4-unit apartment in a single-family zone


Apartments in a single-family zone

Three apartment buildings with 17 units between them, all in a single-family zone

In my opinion, these buildings are fine, they serve a good purpose, and the neighborhood (and city) would be worse off without them. Alex Cecchini has made the case for more density in neighborhood interiors, and Nick Magrino has made the point that the “single-family residential character” of many neighborhoods is make-believe.

Legalize Seward

Duplexes are expensive and scarce, partly because we’ve made it against the law to make a new one in most of the city. Same for triplexes and fourplexes. I like Seward, and we should make room for more neighbors here.

People like to live in 2-3 story multifamily buildings, and we should allow that in most of the city. We need more homes! The rental vacancy rate in the city is around 2%, and it’s been below a healthy 5% since the second quarter of 2010 (back when the average rent was almost $400 lower than it is now). If we don’t build more homes, rents will keep rising and our most vulnerable neighbors will get pushed out of the city.

Scott Shaffer

About Scott Shaffer

Scott Shaffer works for a nonprofit community development corporation in Minneapolis. He has a master's degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Minnesota. He and his wife live in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood with their daughter and two Siamese cats.

41 thoughts on “Low-density Zoning Threatens Neighborhood Character

    1. Diane Dodge

      I lived on 22nd Ave. when the first “urban removal” project went through after I-94 took out bunches of single family homes and duplexes…gentrification then, gentrification now. I vibrant, multicultural neighborhood was torn apart and dispersed. Granted, many of the buildings were not in excellent shape, but the social fabric of the neighborhood was. Also see the history of the Rondo neighborhood for comparison. Big money buys big toys, like freeways and sports stadiums to disrupt all manner of types of social cohesion. As William Jefferson Clinton said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

      1. Rosa

        You hear all the time about how so many of the buildings had to go because they were in terrible shape – Powderhorn and Phillips are full of holes where houses and duplexes were condemned and torn down – but it’s the low-density zoning and too stringent setback rules that make it so they haven’t been gradually replaced with newer buildings of similar size and density that are in better shape.

  1. Jennifer Cannon

    SFH owners are the worst. Well, SFH owners who claim only SFHs have “character” which is a word that really means whatever you want it to mean in the context of your statement. Let the people live in the dwellings they desire. When I’m old and decrepit I will damn sure want to live in a multi-unit building but I’d hate to have to leave my neighborhood to do it.

  2. Rosa

    Thank you! This is a great article and an important point.

    I’d go farther and say even higher-density apartments preserve neighborhood character. The neighborhood isn’t the buildings, it’s the people – and when we zone/price out the people who love the neighborhood, who grew up there or have family and friends there or who are getting older and want to stay there, we change the neighborhood for the worse.

    1. Diane Dodge

      Exactly, Rosa…plus the inability to return to the neighborhood because one is priced out of the market.

        1. Rosa

          I appreciate the amplification though. I don’t understand why so many people claim to love our neighborhood and want it to stay the same, while hating the kind of development that made the neighborhood affordable and gave it the character it has!

          1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

            And if we actually wanted to preserve the mix of housing types we have right now, we would have to upzone. The current zoning will inevitably change the neighborhood to fewer multifamily homes and more single-family homes. Buildings aren’t permanent, and somewhere down the line, every one of these dots on my map is going to be more expensive to repair than to replace. When that time comes, they’ll tear down a multifamily building and replace it with a one- or two-family building, because that’s what the zoning requires.

            1. SSP

              Scott would you be willing to share your data set for the above map in the Lowry Hill East neighborhood?

              Last time I looked at the data in LHE the numbers seemed much lower than you show for non-conforming apartment buildings, so I am curious to understand what is going on in your map for my neighborhood.

              I thought the recent neighborhood rezoning done by Lisa Bender in LHE was largely driven by a desire to remove non-conformities (admittedly the largest category was single family homes zoned R6).

              I am also curious about the scattered light blue squares on the map, which the legend identifies as “single family,” I am not sure how those could be “existing multi-family properties that violate the zoning code”.

            2. SSP


              Can you provide an example in the last decade supporting your hypothesis that multi families zoned for lower density ultimately get replaced with single family homes because “it is more expensive to repair than replace” the old apartment buildings?

              Economics predict (and personal observation supports) that non-conformities allowing more intensive use are better maintained, because owners don’t want to lose what is a zoning “monopoly” – the right to operate at a more intensive use than your neighbor with the same zoning.

  3. Jim Welsch

    I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments expressed in the article, and in the comments. I’ve lived in Seward for 17 years, in a duplex I love, and during the entire time I hear/see on almost a weekly basis requests, notices, and posts from people looking to live in the neighborhood. In this environment, I can’t understand why Seward has so much land that is either vacant, or under-utilized. Not only that, but much of this land is near transit lines and amenities like parks and the Midtown Greenway, which should make the land even more attractive for housing development. But the land continues to sit empty or under-utilized. YIMBY, please.

  4. Bill Hanssen

    This article is strange. Seward is chosen as an example of a neighborhood hamstrung by low density zoning mistakes. Yet Seward has some of the most varied housing and living arrangements in the city. There are at least two 320 unit towers, a 200 unit 3 story buildings (Cedars 94), Multiple 12 to 20 unit buildings. The map of grandfathered in non conforming multifamily housing included in the article shows 25 duplexes, 20 tri and fourplexes, and 6 other 5+ plexes. That is over 50 smaller muitifamily buildings. There are at least two intentional communities in the neighborhood housing 8-12 people in large houses. Many students from the U and Augsburg live in rooms in shared homes. There is an old school turned into housing. There are former industrial buildings turned into housing. There are apartments over some of the businesses on Franklin. There are a handful of old stores with apartments above the shop. There is a historic district of preserved worker homes from the 1800s. Theres a row of 1980s era underground earth homes. I don’t know how townhomes fit into zoning laws, but there are at least two townhome developments that were built long after the zoning.

    With all these different types of housing existing in one relatively small neighborhood (1.3m^2, population less than 8000), I fail to see how Seward has been negatively affected by zoning at all.

    1. Scott ShafferScott Shaffer Post author

      So the main problem is that we haven’t built enough homes for the people who want to live here (like me, hi). The median home value in the neighborhood has gone up by $50,000 since 2000, adjusting for inflation. That’s a huge wall keeping out renters like me who want to buy a home here. Most aging homeowners who want to downsize don’t have the option of dividing their home into a duplex, and there haven’t been any market-rate apartments built in the neighborhood for 35 years. I know immigrants who moved out to the suburbs to find housing, and I know of U students who like the neighborhood but can’t find a place to rent. Try right now! There are like 9 listings on Craigslist, and the only one that’s not by the freeway is asking $2000 a month.

      1. Bill Hanssen

        That’s fair. I lived in Seward in the 1990s and probably would enjoy living there again. Duplexes don’t seem to be a great solution to adding city density. They are most commonly found in exurban areas. Blaine, Maple Grove, etc have developments filled with duplexes.

        A better solution for an urban area is larger condo or co-op buildings with units that are sized for families. I think the zoning is such that these could be added into the periphery of Seward and along Franklin. Developers only want to build rentals now though so I am not holding my breath.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          “Duplexes don’t seem to be a great solution to adding city density. They are most commonly found in exurban areas.”

          Huh? There are duplexes, all over Phillips, some 100 years old, and along the larger arterials all through south Minneapolis. Walk south from Lake Street or so along Portland, Park, Chicago, Bloomington and Cedar and you’ll notice that there are more duplexes than single family homes.

          They are also some tris, quads and small apartments too, so yes, let’s also allow them.

          1. Bill Hanssen

            This article told me duplexes are expensive and scarce and current zoning will only exacerbate this issue.

            But you’re telling me there are already more duplexes than single family homes.


            I guess I am too stupid to understand what is being said if the city is filled with the types of structures of the type I’m being told there is a shortage.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              I said there were more duplexes than single family homes on the main arterials. There are many more single family homes on the less busy streets.

              Many/most of those duplexes are the non-conforming structures this article highlights (check out the blue dots on the map) that couldn’t be built today.

              For however many years until we added restrictive zoning, the city could get gradually denser by adding these kinds of structure. Today, that can’t happen because we banned it.

            2. Rosa

              we have a lot of duplexes (add Powderhorn to this list of neighborhoods!) but it’s because they’re super old. Zoning mostly prevents new ones from being built, or units being added to them (such as attic conversions to make 2 units into 3). It’s getting a little better, we have a newish additional dwelling unit ordinance. But the zoning we have is “preserving” a neighborhood that doens’t exist – one without all these old legally grandfathered in buildings.

              When one deteriorates past fixing, or burns down, it’s often illegal to replace it.

      2. SSP

        I don’t think the problem is we haven’t built enough housing for people like Scott, it’s that the City has failed to coordinate infrastructure (transit mostly) with development that creates more neighborhoods/nodes where people can live in walkable locations.

        That drives up the cost of housing in those few walkable nodes that exist, ironically driving out those who would actually live car-free and replacing them with higher income folks who have cars even if they don’t need them or use them much.

        I agree that there are very few if any areas of the City that should be zoned less than R2B or R3, but upzoning in high demand areas is not going to get Scott a cheaper home in those neighborhoods unless on already existing vacant land. If you are paying for a house to tear it down, the price of the housing destroyed needs to be built into the price of the new housing (see 24th and Colfax where affordable housing was torn down and replaced with similar sized and a similar number of “affordable” units with rents 3x that of the housing destroyed).

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Similar number of units?? No. The building as proposed (and I assume as built) is 45 units. 2320 Colfax had 15 units. I’m not immediately seeing how many units were in the other house, but even if it was also 15, it’s a significant increase in units.

          But yes, they are not at one-room rooming house prices.

    2. SSP

      If BIll’s comment is correct, and there are 25 duplexes that are non-conforming, what is the zoning on those properties? Are they sitting on R-1 or R-1A lots? It would seem silly that any of Seward would be zoned less than R-2.

  5. Kareb

    I lived in one of those dots, around Portland and Saratoga in St. Paul in a single family home and it was wonderful.

    There were several story aparment buildings from the 20s and the 60s, duplexes, four plexes and single family homes.

    The house around the apartments weren’t worse or of less value than those surrounded by only houses.

    The apartments and duplexes and four plexes brought density, pedestrians, stores, and other businesses nearby because of all the people within walking distance.

  6. Janne

    That map underrepresents the non-conforming buildings, because many, many multifamily buildings have been turned into condos, and so don’t have rental licenses. It’s even more normal to have multifamily buildings than what’s patently obvious from this map!

  7. Lou Miranda

    Great article. It would be interesting to overlay your map with the routes for the old streetcar system; I’m guessing there’d be a high correlation between illegal housing and the most efficient transportation.

    Has Mpls upzoned the areas around light rail? Is it just the immediate streets around rail, or does it feather into surrounding neighborhoods, gradient style?

    1. Jordan

      Thank you for those links Joshua.

      Could anyone illuminate for me what would be the actual process at the city level for instituting these upzoning changes? What would actually need to happen?

      1. Bill Hanssen

        zoning is straightforward to change on a case by case basis

        you just have to go through the process of asking for an exception

        there have been zero cases of projects that didn’t go through due to zoning issues

        the real reason there aren’t more duplexes is because despite the lamentations of this author, there is little demand

        Even if the zoning were changed, it is unlikely there will be a flood of such structures in Seward, as the all the property in the neighborhood is already privately owned.

        1. Scott ShafferScott

          You say there’s low demand for duplexes and that laws that zoning doesn’t matter.

          I say that there’s a two percent rental vacancy rate and that laws that prohibit the creation of duplexes limit the supply of duplexes.

          When was the last time you looked for a place to rent?

          1. Bill Hanssen

            I just think zoning issues especially related to smaller multifamily buildings are correlated to housing scarcity but are not the cause. There was no demand to build anything new in Minneapolis for a long time because Minneapolis was losing population. So it could have been zoned as whatever, people still wouldn’t have built any duplexes.

            I dont think duplexes are good urbanism. They really are just one degree of separation from being a single family home. They are for home seekers who want to live in a separated structure, in a charming 1950s era low density neighborhood but cannot afford the existing houses.

            They do not solve any housing problems as they can only be added gradually into a neighborhood as people move out. Then they only add 1 additional residence to a plot. Whereas a large residential development can add 50-200 new residences to a neighborhood.

            When demand rose, Minneapolis has done a good of a job as anywhere of attacking housing issues. Large residential buildings have been approved and built in the neighborhoods with the highest demand.

            A better solution would be to redevelop Franklin avenue to include more multi use structures. The entire street is mainly low rise buildings and surface parking lots. There’s even an empty plot of land at 21st that isn’t being used for anything. A detached Taco Bell is the main business at the corner of Franklin and Minnehaha? C’mon…

            Next off would be redeveloping the area around 25th street between 26th ave and Minnehaha. There are many businesses in low rise warehouses here. Some of these are probably necessary as a hub for distributing food or other necessary supplies. But many of them are just low rise office buildings. there are a lot of surface parking lots. Many businesses leave and these get repurposed to house the sorts of businesses that could function in any kind of space. My apologies to bowlers but but Memory Lanes and its parking lot are a waste of space.

            Furthermore, the parking lots in this area are empty at night, while the semi trucks which service these businesses park on city streets, a situation which seems very backwards to me.

            Many changes could be made to improve urbanism before solving the problem of few duplexes Even if every high-density idea was implemented I still would not encourage the building of duplexes. Rather I would wait until in owners in SFH areas move on and have the city buy up the property and lots. I would repurpose low density residential areas into more parkland and recreational areas for people living in higher density housing.

            Obviously this will never happen in Minneapolis but hopefully I’ve made my position clear.

            1. Rosa

              You don’t have to encourage it, just allow it and people will do it.

              I moved here in 1999 and the rental vacancy rate was down near zero. The neighborhoods were bursting at the seams, with people living in illegally divided SFHs and duplexes, and also sometimes in tents in other people’s yards. I’ve watched several people going through the process of legally adding a unit – including people who purchased buildings that had been illegally divided into MANY units, or informally occupied as multiunits, for years – and be slowed for years or give up. I’ve also watched the gradual loss of small SFHs over time, replaced with empty lots, because setback rules don’t allow easy rebuilding. There’s one in my neighborhood that was for sale last summer for $140k with just a house-shaped hole and a garage on the lot, it was made uninhabitable by the big wind storm a few years ago.

              Big projects are useful, but they’re not the only solution. If we’d been allowing infill development all these years, we wouldn’t have the same scale of housing crisis that we have now.

              1. Bill Hanssen

                I lived in uptown in 98 , after I lived in Seward. My place was $850 for a 2BR on Girard and 31st. I don’t remember the era where people were living in tents.

                1. Rosa

                  I saw it in Powderhorn in ’01-’02. We were househunting then and we saw a LOT of places subdivided with people living in pantries, closets, and sheeted off halves of rooms, too. Actually my husband shared a house in Uptown in 2000 where his “room” was the pantry. Before that they were living in an illegally rented out mansion in Phillips, so everyone had their own room.

                  It’s nothing like that now (or if it is, it’s not in Powderhorn) but we were just visiting friends in St Paul who are looking at having to leave their neighborhood; their kids are getting bigger, they’d like a bigger apartment, but their area doesn’t have many apartments and they don’t want/can’t afford a whole house. So they’re just living super crowded right now. I don’t think they’ll hold out until their youngest, a 2nd grader, makes it all the way through elementary, even though they love the area and want to keep the kids in the same school.

            2. Janne

              The housing shortage in Minneapolis (and all of the Twin Cities) is so great that we need an all-of-the-above. We should build more housing in the areas you name. AND we should make 2-4 unit buildings legal to build in Minneapolis.

        2. Rosa

          when we were house shopping, we totally wanted a duplex. We already knew we couldn’t afford Seward, but we looked in Phillips and Powderhorn and Longfellow. Duplexes were a lot more expensive than single family buildings, even more than you could account for with the rental income. There definitely is a demand for them.

        3. Matt SteeleMatt

          Bill, you say that “even if the zoning were changed, it is unlikely there will be a flood of such structures” so why then do you seem to be concerned with changing zoning?

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